The History of Fasting

Fasting has been a part of human history for at least seven millennia and practiced by ancestors all around the globe. The history of fasting is rich and much has been forgotten. It’s recent rediscovery and popularity in the last several years is already proving it to be a useful tool in balance our modern lifestyle.

Below we share a glimpse into fasting’s tremendous history first in a 3-part video series and then in more detail with a robust timeline. Believing that this will be of benefit to both those just discovering fasting as well as long-time fasters.

As obesity, diabetes, and other inflammation and insulin-related chronic disease rates have dramatically risen in the United States in the last 50 years, it is crucial that we remember our ancient fasting techniques that have proven their effectiveness and versatility throughout time.

History of Fasting
Fasting in 5000 BCE. Ancient texts explained that withholding food from the digestive system could clear the body of toxins. Thus, Indian doctors who practiced Ayurvedic medicine promoted fasting to heal the body. As early as 5000 BCE, followers of Ayurvedic medicine practiced intermittent fasting to maintain health.
Fasting in 1350 BCE. Egyptian pharaohs practiced fasting on doctor's orders. Ancient Egyptian doctors believed stomach problems could cause illnesses, so they warned pharaohs to always leave part of their stomach empty. Egyptian priests and prophetesses also fasted to connect with the divine world.
Fasting in 450 BCE. The Buddha spread his philosophy of fasting. While visiting monks in northern India, he told them, "I, monks, do not eat a meal in the evening. Not eating a meal in the evening I, monks, am aware of good health and of being without illness and of buoyancy and strength and living in comfort. Come, do you too, monks, not eat a meal in the evening. Not eating a meal in the evening you too, monks, will be aware of good health . . . and living in comfort."
Fasting in 400 BCE. The Greek physician Hippocrates, considered the father of Western medicine, promoted fasting as a key component of health. Hippocrates believed the body could heal itself during a fast. As Hippocrates explained, "Everyone has a physician inside him or her; we just have to help it in its work. The natural healing force within each one of us is the greatest force in getting well. Our food should be our medicine. Our medicine should be our food. But to eat when you are sick is to feed your sickness."
Fasting in 200 BCE. In ancient China, religious texts recommended fasting to improve spiritual health. A manuscript from 2,200 years ago suggested periods of fasting to increase spiritual energy, or qi. When not digesting food and creating waste, the body could better receive qi. Later, the Taoists promoted fasting as a path to spiritual immortality.
Fasting in 100. The philosopher Plutarch, born in Greece and a citizen of Rome during the empire's height, wrote Advice on Keeping Well around 100. Plutarch recommend, "we ought especially to guard against excess in eating and drinking," a common message in classical medicine. Plutarch also suggested, in the Hippocratic tradition, "Instead of using medicine, rather, fast a day."
Fasting in 200. The Greeks and Romans worshipped Asclepius, the god of medicine. Pilgrims traveled for miles to visit Asclepius's temples for healing. Fasting was an important part of their treatment. According to mystics, Asclepius would appear in their dreams after a fast. The god's loyal followers woke up cured after a visit from Asclepius.
Fasting in 325. Christians should fast for 40 days before Easter, declared the Council of Nicea in 325. This fast, which became known as Lent, would be a period of spiritual reflection and penitence. Early Christians pointed to Biblical fasts, including Moses fasting for 40 days on Mt. Sinai and Elijah fasting as he fled from Jezebel, as inspiration.
Fasting in 370. In Asia Minor, St. Basil the Great promoted fasting: “Fasting gives birth to prophets and strengthens the powerful; fasting makes lawgivers wise. Fasting is a good safeguard for the soul, a steadfast companion for the body, a weapon for the valiant, and a gymnasium for athletes. Fasting repels temptations, anoints unto piety; it is the comrade of watchfulness and the artificer of chastity. In war it fights bravely, in peace it teaches stillness."
Fasting in 622. The prophet Muhammad built Islam on five pillars. One of the pillars was Ramadan, a holy month for fasting. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast during daylight to focus on their faith. As the Quran states, “You who believe, fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may be mindful of God.”
Fasting in 1000. Avicenna, one of the greatest thinkers of the Islamic Golden Age, argued that fasting was a key part of maintaining health. Managing the body's intake of food, Avicenna argued, was an important medical treatment. "Food reduction," as Avicenna called fasting, could treat gastrointestinal distress and inflammation.
Fasting in 1250. The Persian poet Rumi wrote a poem in praise of fasting. "There's hidden sweetness in the stomach's emptiness," Rumi wrote. "We are lutes, no more, no less. If the soundbox is stuffed full of anything, no music. If the brain and belly are burning clean with fasting, every moment a new song comes out of the fire."
Fasting in 1360. Catherine of Siena was a disappointment to her family. The 24th child of Lapa and Giacomo, Catherine refused to marry when her parents found her a husband. In protest, she cut off her hair and began fasting. During her fasts, Catherine had visions of Jesus. Instead of marrying, Catherine became a nun and an activist. A century after her death, Catherine became a saint.
Fasting in 1400. In Peru, the Inca set aside an entire month in their calendar for penitence and fasting. During the month of January, the Inca would offer sacrifice to their gods, paint their bodies with ash, and fast. The Inca also fasted after a solar eclipse in an attempt to please the gods.
Fasting in 1424. In rural France, a 12-year-old girl heard a voice in her garden. “At first I was very much frightened,” Joan of Arc said. “The voice came toward the hour of noon. I had fasted the preceding day.” Joan continued to fast on Fridays as she led the French army to a series of stunning victories over the English during the Hundred Years' War.
Fasting in 1500. Indigenous people across North America used "dream fasts" to connect with the spiritual world. In the Great Plains, the Lakota would fast for three or four days during a vision quest. Young Cree men would fast in the wilderness to mark their passage into manhood. During the dream fast, visitors from the spiritual world would enlighten the seekers.
Fasting in 1530. The Swiss physician Paracelsus promoted observation in treating patients. In his travels across Europe, Paracelsus advocated fasting as a medical cure. He called fasting "the physician within," arguing that "fasting is the greatest remedy." Paracelsus also believed that "a doctor must be a traveler" because "knowledge is experience."
Fasting in 1747. "The best of all medicines are resting and fasting," declared Benjamin Franklin. To support his belief in fasting, Franklin proposed an official Day of Fasting and Prayer in 1747. Shaken by the wars he had witnessed, Franklin argued that fasting and prayer could "still the rage of war among the nations" and stop the bloodshed.
Fasting in 1920. Across the United Kingdom, the Nature Cure approach advocated for exercise, fresh air, and fasting. From Edinburgh to London, visitors to Nature Cure clinics practiced therapeutic fasting. The practice could improve high blood pressure, digestive health, heart disease, and other illnesses.
Fasting in 1928. Dr. Herbert Shelton promoted therapeutic fasting to prevent and treat health issues. "Fasting must be recognized as a fundamental and radical process that is older than any other mode of caring for the sick organism, for it is employed on the plane of instinct," Shelton argued.
Fasting in 1932. Mahatma Gandhi used fasting to protest British rule of India. From a jail cell, Gandhi used hunger strikes as part of his civil disobedience campaign. Thanks to his fasting, Gandhi won many concessions from the British and helped secure India's independence.
Fasting in 1966. Under the supervision of doctors, a Scotsman named Angus Barbieri successfully fasted for over a year. During that time, Barbieri successfully lost nearly 300 pounds, while doctors monitored his blood sugar and suggested supplements to help Barbieri stay healthy.
Fasting in the 1960s-1900s. As obesity, insulin resistance, and diabetes begin to rise in the United States, three major sugar companies paid scientists at Harvard to play down the role of sugar in health. At the same time, many food companies started pushing sugar-laden breakfast options and convenience food, which contributed to the drastic change in modern diets.
Fasting in 2019. A review in the New England Journal of Medicine evaluates recent scientific research into fasting. The article concludes that fasting can decrease inflammation, lower blood sugar numbers, and improve metabolism. As a result, the studies demonstrate that fasting can lower the risk of cancer and obesity.

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